Lower Manhattan without power after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by TenSafeFrogs/flickr/CC-BY-2.0

By the end of November 2012, New York City’s Department of Buildings “red-tagged”, or rapidly assessed, over 870 buildings as being unsafe due to the impacts of Hurricane Sandy. Out of these, only five were taller than 50’ and only nine were less than 10 years old (only one building, located in Staten Island and constructed in 2009, was built after the DoB’s 2008 building code update).

Bigger and newer fared much better.

Of course there were thousands of more buildings that need major renovations, and possibly tens of thousands of residents and businesses will be displaced for long periods of time. However, the biggest impact was not building destruction,

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but the failure of certain pieces of infrastructure: electricity, heat, water, and transit.

Historically, energy has always been dispersed, or more precisely, it was both produced and consumed in close proximity to one another. Gas became king by the early 1800’s when large gasifiers began replacing at-home generators due to economies of scale: municipal gas became the first centralized energy system. Electricity, which was less dangerous than gas, soon followed and utilized the same model of large production and municipal distribution.

By the 1920’s, electric producers and consumers were sharing electricity across regions. The producers got larger, the environmental impacts expanded in scale, and production continued to move further away from the lungs (and minds) of consumers. Electricity producers rejoiced in reduced brown- and black-outs, they increased their customer base, and created protected markets, and consumers enjoyed some reduced costs. But as New York City residents can attest, especially after Hurricane Sandy, the system is not perfect.

Disasters have a pesky way of revealing our systems’ weak points.

NYCHA’s Red Hook Houses were without power or heat for 2 weeks after Hurricane Sandy

As New York City begins to rebuild, and as building codes, standards, and materials steadily improve and adapt to new hazards, it is likely that newer buildings will act as a sort of “safe island” amid a sea of tumultuous hazards, as became evident after Hurricane Sandy. Our buildings may be safe islands someday soon, but how do they connect (or reconnect) once the worst is over? Perhaps our attention should be focused on infrastructure adaptation and resiliency. The answer?

Distributed Energy!

Capstone Microturbines are used for cogeneration, resource recovery, distributed power generation, and for electric vehicles. Can be scaled between 30kW to 10MW. Image via Capstone Microturbines.

Distributed energy is a throwback to the days of yore, when power was small, modular, and produced energy near where it was consumed. Today, we have wind turbines, solar power, and fuel cells added to our pantry of energy producers, which makes localized energy creation that much easier and safer.

And power generation is just a part of a larger distributed energy network. It also includes reuse of energy creation byproducts like heat, a smart grid for distribution, and improved energy efficiency of our built environment.

A phosphoric acid fuel cell: the fuel processor re-forms natural gas into hydrogen gas, which is fed into the fuel cell stack. In the stack, hydrogen gas and air are combined in an electrochemical process that produces direct current (DC) power, water, and heat. The byproduct water is used in the operation of a power plant. The byproduct heat is available for meeting other requirements in the facility, such as creating hot water, space heating, or cooling. The DC power provided by the fuel cell stack is conditioned to provide alternating current (AC) power output. Image vie Green Manufacturer and UTC Power.

Distributed energy and related Customer-owned Utilities concepts, when connected to a larger electric grid of a municipality, can help meet peak demands, reducing brown-outs and black-outs, can help provide backup power during outages, and can be more resilient to disasters by dispersing production (not putting all your eggs in one basket).

They could also help encourage more sustainable use of energy by encouraging renewable energy production, reducing transmission-line redundancy and waste (almost 10% of all energy produced is lost on transmission lines) and providing charging stations to electric vehicles.

So what could a distributed energy system look like?

Let’s start with municipal buildings. Plop a 1.4 MW fuel cell in every school parking lot (there are about 1,700 schools in NYC) and you can generate over 2,300 megawatts. That’s enough power for more than 2 million (average American) homes! Not only is there almost zero emissions produced, but the heat byproducts can be used for steam, hot water, and chilled water for local businesses and homes.

1.4 mw Fuel Cell dimensions. Diagram via Fuel Cell Energy Corp.

While natural gas is not necessarily a clean or renewable resource, we have an opportunity to produce much of it within New York City’s bounds with tools such as anaerobic biodigesters:

This biodigester produces 1.6MW of energy from cow manure. Photo via USDA

Each Industrial Business Zone (IBZ) could allocate a percentage of space for biofuel and biodigester development, on existing City-owned land or in existing EDC incubator space. The IBZ ombudsmen, SBS, and NYC EDC could develop partnerships with local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) to funnel business waste to the biodigester micro-plants.

Of course municipal infrastructure such as lighting and security cameras should come off the grid with no problem. The Navy Yard installed 90 Lumi-Solair light posts in 2009 which are saving tens of thousands of dollars in electricity bills, plus the original cost of connecting them to the grid.

Lumi-Solair lighting, which costs approximately $10,000 per unit, requires no infrastructure build out and is basically “set it and forget it”.

And then of course, we have the more traditional photo-voltaic panels, solar hot-water heaters, and micro-wind turbines which can be applied ubiquitously on multitudes of private and public properties.

With the options available to us today, and the scales and prices at which we can implement distributed energy, it is somewhat surprising that we can still be impacted by larger disasters and regional power shortages.